Happy Sunshine Week! This week (March 11-17, 2018) newspapers nationwide grade the performance of government agencies on access to public records.
“Public records” generally are defined as records, regardless of their physical form, made or received in connection with official government business. “Regardless of physical form” means that public records come in various forms, not just paper records. They can also be electronic, such as email or can be photos, video or audio.
Examples of public records used by reporters are arrest reports, mug shots, lawsuits and property records. Add a quote or two and presto! Story!
The term FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) is an acronym commonly used when describing the activity of accessing records from government agencies. But each state has a name for its own public records law.
Some newspapers this week will report that they submitted identical requests for records to various agencies and compared the responses and compliance with public records laws. Some papers this week will expose an agency that stonewalls access to public records.
Public records are a big deal to newspapers. They form the backbone for many stories and access to records can affect the paycheck of a reporter. Perusing newspaper articles will often reveal information from a public record.
Since “NEWS” could be defined as “something that someone somewhere wants to withhold,” reporters are constantly turning over rocks at the county courthouse, police station and any government agency that might contain THE public record which can be utilized in a story.
Allegations of “Fake News” can easily be countered with public records.
But reporters certainly don’t have the market cornered on public records. They are public records. You paid for them with your tax dollars and they are yours! Does your daughter’s new boyfriend have a criminal record? How much did your new neighbor pay for that house? Has your doctor ever been disciplined? Did your old flame ever get married? All can be found in public records.
Tips on becoming a crackerjack public records researcher:
1. If you are uncertain whether a government record is public or not — don’t waste your time wondering about it. Just ask for it. It is the responsibility of the agency to tell you if the record is public or not.
2. Don’t ask questions. Government types are not required to answer your questions. They are required to provide public records. So frame your question as a public record request. Don’t ask: “How much is our mayor making this year?” Better: “Please provide a copy of the record that shows how much the mayor makes per year.”
3. The more exact the request, the better. Add as much detail as possible so the records custodian can find your record easily.
4. Be persistent and patient. Some governments are painfully slow.
5. Some records custodians will have your records to you before you finish drinking that cup of coffee. And to those records custodians please wish them a Happy Sunshine Week! And, if you give them flowers you will get your records even faster! (Yes, that is a proven technique!)
Good luck in your search!
Kenneth Kramer is a public records expert and private investigator. His website, PsychSearch.net has the world’s largest collection of records on psychiatrists.
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